Happyland by J. Robert Lennon

 Author J.Robert Lennon struggled to get Happyland published–astonishing really when you consider just how good an author he is, but apparently publishers feared lawsuits for implied connections between the very fictional Happyland and the real life story of Pleasant Rowland and the town of Aurora, in New York state. In the introduction, Lennon explains his multiple thwarted attempts to get this novel published adding that “if you’d told me in 2003 that this novel wouldn’t be read in its entirety until 2013, I would probably have stopped writing it–and if you’d told me why, I might have sought out, at least for a while, a less heartbreaking profession than novel writing.”

This is clearly a satire, a work of fiction, and yes inspired by an idea. The author states that he didn’t intend to “write anything remotely controversial,” but he got an idea from real life and ran with it. Unfortunately, publishers were worried about “unthreatened lawsuits,” and when the author refused to change some of the story basics, the book was shelved, appearing only in serial form in Harper’s in 2006. What a great shame that a writer of Lennon’s calibre had to wait so long for the novel to make it to readers, but here it is at last, and it’s well worth the wait….

happylandThe main character of Happyland is middle-aged Happy Masters, married to millionaire mogul James Masters, and while the marriage “dulled by familiarity” isn’t love-y in any sort of traditional sense, it’s successful mainly due to the fact that Happy and James lead their own lives and their meetings are infrequent, “explosive collisions, cataclysmic unleashings of pent-up emotion. Where once they argued, they now fought, open-handed and filthy-mouthed.” 

Happy “founder, CEO and creative mastermind of Happy Girls, Inc” formed the doll company 25 years earlier when “weary of her duties as a bride of privilege,” she found a broken antique doll and began a collection. Happy’s sad childhood never included a doll, and this one precious doll grew to a large, expensive collection, and then she formed Happy Dolls–a company which eventually included an entire line of historic dolls “decked out in period clothes,” and included storybooks with cheesy, abbreviated versions of history. No one could have predicted Happy’s phenomenal success. She intuited what children wanted–probably because her own childhood was spent in longing. Some of her dolls are so popular that “near riots” occur when stock runs low.

There were ninety-two different dolls currently in production, and one hundred fifty-six discontinued models, which had their own separate category on e-Bay. There were websites conferences, clubs. There was fan fiction. There for full-size clothes for real girls to wear, There was an animated cartoon and a live-action dramatic series. There had been one movie Lily and Sally, critically panned but big box office.

Some people overcome horrendous childhood experiences to become almost inhuman, and that’s Happy Masters in a word. Happy was an orphan, “raised by a bitter, alcoholic aunt,” and she learned to “[endure] the inventive maliciousness of two older cousins.” This rags-to-riches story may sound a bit like Cinderella, and we’d expect a happy ending. In a way, Happy has that happy ending. When the novel opens, she’s attended the funeral of one of the cousins. Now they are both dead and Happy has lived to see her 2 of her 3 worst enemies placed 6 feet under. Aunt Missy, however, is still alive, as garrulous as ever, and a meeting at the graveside comes dangerously close to violence.

After the ugly, vicious scene with her aunt at the funeral, Happy drives around for a few hours to cool off. Her journey takes her to the small college town of Equinox, population 410,  sleepy, pretty and quaint in its genteel decay and with a dark bizarre history. To Happy, it’s a “forlorn town, a dilapidated town: barely a town at all, just a few blocks clustered around a handful of cracked and dirty streets.” And it’s here as Happy looks around the town and its disinterested service population, that an idea takes root in her “toxic heart.” Equinox will become her next triumph, her “Jerusalem.”

She learned long ago that there was no point in looking for the thing you wanted; only the weak wanted things that could be found. The greatest desires could only be fulfilled by creating their object: a toy, a man, a state of mind.

She begins by bossing around the local real estate agent and handing the astonished woman a check for a neglected mansion with a beautiful lake view. Then slowly and strategically, Happy approaches various business owners in Equinox.  She begins by buying key operations–the inn, the beauty salon, the dusty corner market–initially offering overly generous sums of money, but then she starts to play dirty. Soon the town becomes divided over Happy’s plan to renovate Equinox making it some sort of glitzy tourist destination which will include a Happy Girl Museum. Most people who lived there were perfectly happy with the town the way it was, but a few people are thrilled to grab the money Happy offers for their anemic businesses.

And people in the  bar had started taking sides. By and large the locals liked the idea–rumor had it Ken Pell had gotten more than a hundred grand for the market, which was probably three times what it was worth, and there were plenty of Equinoxians who would stab their own sisters for that kind of money. College people, on the other hand–professors–said they’d never sell. They liked Equinox because it was quaint and cheap and on the lake. They liked authenticity, which evidently meant hicks and greasers, and they disliked the rich, a category they apparently excused themselves from.

Locals, though: they liked the idea of some bigwig moving into town. They liked somebody spreading money around. They thought it would help.

Even the people who dislike and distrust Happy have no idea of the sort of person they are dealing with. Underneath the public persona of sweetness and a great understanding of children, the real Happy is a hard, driven and canny millionairess who will do whatever it takes to ‘own’ Equinox. That includes lying, cheating, and breaking the law–it’s all on the table over the battle for Equinox. Happy feels renewed by her new plan, and that makes her a very dangerous adversary. Anyone who has the guts or the lack of imagination to stand in Happy’s way discovers the hard way that this woman plays dirty. Happy’s plan of attack when it comes to her play to take over Equinox College–a small private institution for women is simply hilarious.

Here’s Happy in a long quote that gives a sense of the author’s style, Happy’s character and merciless MO as she’s about to take over the general store:

From inside, a rustling, a scraping, a heavy tread. The door swung open. As soon as Happy saw the owner, she knew the battle was won. A shame, really, she’d hoped for a fight. It hardly seemed worth going through the motions now. The man who stood before her was little taller than she was, and half again as heavy; he had the blockish body that results from a five-coke-a-day habit and a lifetime of indolence. His coarse gray hair drooped over a pitted forehead, and the eyes were brown and dull as bark. They regarded her from behind thick curtains of tired flesh, and thick black eyebrows–dyed? she wondered, and is so, why?–dove into the furrows between them, in hostile curiosity. Happy said. “Mister …?”

“Pell.”

“Mr. Pell, so pleased to meet you. I’m Happy Masters.”

The steel door snicked shut behind her, and a switch was flipped in her head. She was different now: relentless, glib, incontrovertible. Homo hardsellius.

“Mr. Pell, let me get straight to the point. I want to buy your store. Today.”

“Not for sale,” he said, but a hint of life crept into those hooded eyes.

“You could be on your way home, right now, with a check in your hand. You could, in fact, be on your way out of town. Winter will be here soon, Mr. Pell. You could be on Maui by the end of the week.”

“Where?” he muttered.

“Hawaii, sir. or wherever you like” Finland, maybe, or Canada. Gotta hurry this up–it was like doing business in a doghouse.

“Mr. Pell, I would like you to retire today. I would like these to be the last moments you spend in this store. I would like to remove the burden of this property from your hands, right now. What would it take to make this happen?”

While Happyland has a delightful, wonderful plot, it’s also full of some great characters, including laconic, easy-going Bud and his tenacious wife, Jennifer who own the rundown gas station/ice cream kiosk. Jennifer makes a decent adversary for Happy as she’s every bit as mean and merciless but, unfortunately, lacks deep pockets. There’s also David who owns the local bar who would like to have principles if he could afford them, and  “middle-aged and languishing,” Reeve Tennyson, the college president who landed in this third-rate school after an embarrassing scandal that he walked into through his own ineptness. Aware that Equinox college really wanted to employ a woman, he’s a bit ashamed of working at Equinox College with its all female enrollment and the large percentage of lesbian students. He mostly hides out in his office, waits for his life to pass and thinks he’s hit rock bottom. It’s probably a good thing that he has no idea of the fate Happy Masters has in store for him.

Poor fella. He was doomed to lose. She could have told him this back in the day. The wandering eye, the nervous hands–it was a wonder he managed to get as far as he did before he fell. And the saddest part of all was that he thought he had landed. he thought this was the bottom.

Well, far be it from her to disabuse him of that notion. There was nothing quite so useful as someone who think she has nothing to lose. Indeed, there were, as life had demonstrated to Happy time and time again, treasures at the dump.

 Happyland  with its dark, satiric humour is very different from the other two Lennon novels I’ve read Castle and Familiar. But even though Happyland is meant to be taken as a very funny story, there’s no shortage of moral questions raised in this quintessential American novel in which money and power trumps all other considerations. Does anyone as filthy rich as Happy Masters have the moral right to convert and co-opt an entire town to their own purpose? And then there’s the response of the townspeople–some business owners would really like to sell to Happy but they’re affronted by her attitude that everything and everyone is for sale, so they don’t immediately sell. This results in a war between locals and Happy, who’s a) determined to get her way and b) ready to bury her enemies in financial disaster. Happyland looks at the reaction of the average Citizen when he’s faced with being either figuratively bulldozed into oblivion by a multi-million dollar corporation or starved off the face of the earth by someone with near-endless financial resources.  Taking a moral stand or arguing principles is a very expensive position to maintain as several townspeople find out the hard way. Then there’s Happy–a woman who possesses many admirable character traits but they’ve been trumped by her own moral corrosion and steady diet of endless power and money. Finally on the meta-level, there’s author J. Robert Lennon  who refused to compromise his principles when it came to altering some of the story basics, and he had to wait ten years for this book to appear in novel form…. I thoroughly enjoyed  Happyland  for its complete change of pace, its even, funny narrative and its underlying moral questions. This book (and its author) comes highly recommended.

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26 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert

26 responses to “Happyland by J. Robert Lennon

  1. Brian Joseph

    The irony of the book’s trouble delay as it relates to the plot is so interesting. I wonder if Pleasant Rowland will read this book.

  2. She apparently had no problem with the book whatsoever and recognized it as a work of fiction.

  3. I have driven through upstate New York a number of times and I must say your review brought back memories: smallish communities that once had some vibrancy but the factories have now closed and they face either continuing decline or some sort of re-invention. Re-invention sounds like an attractive alternative, until the “saviour” turns out to be someone like Happy Masters. And there are enough completed “theme” towns to show what the dreadful result might be.
    Richard Russo addresses the theme from a realism perspective — I quite like your description of the edgy satirical approach that Lennon has taken. And for an allegorical contrast a couple of centuries and a continent away, I’d suggest Jim Crace’s Harvest which is Booker short-listed — the forces of progress and renewal have always been doubled-edged.

    • I’m a Richard Russo fan, so the suggestion of Jim Crace (which you know I’ve been thinking about) is reinforced.

      I hadn’t been aware of the real life controversy before reading the book, and I wondered how I would feel if I lived in a town that was renovated into some sort of theme town. I’d be appalled, and then I wondered which one of the author’s characters I would be under these circumstances.

      Good point about progress and renewal being double-edged. You’re right.

  4. I had to google Pleasant Rowland, I’d never heard of her at all. Well, JR Lennon isn’t exactly subtle about the comparison when you think of names (Pleasant/Happy – Aurora / Equinox)

    The plot is interesting, though. It’s hard to stick to principles when facing the possibility to make a lot of money without working or doing anything illegal…It reminds me of people who own valuable piece of land: to sell it to developers or not?

    Another writer I should read. (just because he didn’t want to change his book to please his publisher. I appreciate the attitude)

    • You’d like this, I think. It’s really very funny. Not a bit like the other two novels of his that I’ve read–Familiar is my favourite, btw.

      If you read it, you can see how this is just fiction as Happy Masters goes to extreme lengths to get what she wants.

      • OK, so the character is so over-the-top that the real person didn’t feel threatened by the book.

        (This reminds me of Max Barry’s problems with Syrup)

        • Yes Happy is over-the-top, and if this were to be made into a film, it would be a comedy, not a drama.

          • Must be the name. Isn’t it the name of the main character in that film in London where an over-optimistic school teacher learns how to drive with a racist instructor?

            • It’s Happy-Go-Lucky, right? The character who is almost pathologically (annoyingly) Happy is Poppy.

              • You’re right, that was Poppy. Annoying is an understatement.

                • I’ve had discussions with people about that character and no one else seemed to find her annoying or even aggressive in her approach to life. I can still remember her interrupting her friend who was trying to read.

                  I suppose that teaches us something about life. If you bully someone and piss and moan along the way, people get your number, but if you act all happy while you push people to do what you want, you can get away with it.

  5. I have a couple of his books already on the shelf but (as usual) haven’t read any of them yet. I’m a Russo fan too, and I think I’ll enjoy this one – might have to buy it!

  6. It sounds excellent. On the subject of Russo, I read a short by him recently (Nate in Venice) and was impressed by it. It sounds like one could do a nice triptych with this, the Russo and Harvest which is already on my TBR pile.

    Emma’s right that he didn’t change the name very far.

  7. Forgot to ask, which Russo would address similar themes?

  8. Max: Empire Falls comes to mind. Don’t know if that is the one that Kevin was thinking about. I also have Nate in venice but haven’t read it yet. You’d like this, I think. It’s really very funny.

  9. I’ve got Familiar after your review but this sounds so good too.
    I liked that quote when happy is disappointed there won’t be a fight and how she dissects her opponent.

    • Happy is a wonderful character and a fearsome adversary. It’s hilarious how she sets people up for the kill.

      I know you are very busy getting back on track but there’s an earlier review here of The Sleep Room and I think you would love the book.

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